Mondays With Morgan: Michael Blake (new album ‘Dance of the Mystic Bliss’ with Chroma Nova)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with saxophonist Michael Blake, a fixture of the downtown music scene whose career spans four decades and numberless collaborations with fellow top-shelf musicians. Dance of the Mystic Bliss, his debut album with the eclectic, string-augmented ensemble Chroma Nova, is out now; a purchase link can be found at the bottom of this article.

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Michael Blake and Chroma Nova. Seven men standing together looking out at the camera
Michael Blake (centre) with Chroma Nova. Photo credit: Marc Santos Photography

To absorb Michael Blake’s new album, Dance of the Mystic Bliss, is to navigate a litany of personal associations. 

For instance, the tenor and soprano saxophonist’s very missed mother, Merle, looms large in the material. Her 2018 passing almost threw him off the horse, as per his music career. 

She’s eulogised in opener “Merle the Pearl”; her green thumb is reflected on tunes from “Weeds” to “Prune Pluck Pangloss” to “The Meadows.” (The tune “Le Coeur du Jardin” – or “the heart of the garden” – almost named the album.) “Topanga Burns” laments a favourite Mexican joint that went up in flames.

From there, pick your lens. Blake’s stature in the downtown scene, his tenure in John Lurie’s ensemble The Lounge Lizards, the influence of Brazilian music, the rapprochement between jazz and strings – all of it deals heavily in the music.

But the fact remains that if you’re aware of none of it, Dance of the Mystic Bliss – his debut collaborative album with the ensemble Chroma Nova, which arrived 26 May – will maintain its unique power. Throw it on sans advance legwork, and it will nonetheless cast a spell on you, via the melodies and timbres and arrangements alone.

“Sure, for me, it’s all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you’re listening to it, you’re going to have a completely different experience,” Blake tells LondonJazz News over Zoom. “That’s what I love about instrumental music – that’s what’s so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level.”

Hours after the call, Blake and Chroma Nova – guitarist Guilherme Monteiro, percussionists Mauro Refosco and Rogerio Boccato, violinist Skye Steele, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist Michael Bates – performed the release show for Dance of the Mystic Bliss

Michael Blake and Chroma Nova performing at Nublu, 27 May. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

At that gig at Nublu in the East Village, it was clear that “jazz” was something of a misnomer for this music – despite Blake’s bona fides in many corners of the pantheon, and venue-projected footage of everyone from Joe Henderson to Eric Dolphy and Ella Fitzgerald bopping along on the walls.

Sure, too many artists are marketed as stylistically omnivorous these days, but Blake’s offerings on Dance of the Mystic Bliss genuinely hit that mark. Either let it wash over you as pure music, or follow the context in a dozen directions; there’s a deep deposit of satisfaction, regardless of genre tags.

Read on for an interview with Blake about any number of components of Dance of the Mystic Bliss, from learning the flute to tinkering with production to an intriguing engineer with a hip-hop CV.

LondonJazz News: Before I ever read the press materials to Dance of the Mystic Bliss, I listened without any context while mowing the lawn. I wasn’t analysing it or drawing connections; I just let it wash over me. How it made me feel made me want to interview you for my column.

MB: Bruce Gallanter, who runs Downtown Music Gallery, did a writeup on it in his newsletter yesterday. He does thousands of records – every month, at least hundreds of new albums. They’re like the house of Zorn, in a way; they have the weirdest house with a little storefront where people play free and improvised music. 

They’ve been around for decades, and at the end of the review, he was like, “I don’t really know what to call this. It’s so many different things.” [Laughs.] I was like, If he doesn’t know what to call it, then that’s wild!

I think that’s why the record is compared a lot to [my 1997 debut album] Kingdom of Champa, for those who know that early work of mine. Because it’s a really exotic piece of music, and that was inspired by a trip I took to Vietnam in 1995. 

My wife at that time was Vietnamese American, so it was her homecoming. Just this whole wave of emotions – it was a very cathartic trip. But also, since I was in The Lounge Lizards, I was being introduced to all these new musical concepts. There was just so much creativity and open energy happening, and that really rubbed off on me. 

I have other albums with percussion and midsized ensembles; I’m really comfortable with that instrumentation – between six and 10 musicians.

LJN: In the music industry, we’re bombarded with hyperbole. Seemingly everything is said to defy stylistic boundaries, which is impossible. But this record actually does.

MB: There sure is a lot of music coming out nowadays, in huge waves. It’s hard to keep up with everything. But I do try to keep up with what other people are doing.

I did this record [on co-founded label P&M Records] with my brother [Paul], and he and I have shared similar musical tastes for years. And also, argued and completely disagreed about music at times. 

But we were listening to a bunch of records – some by my friends, some just other things he was interested in – and there was this one album he chose. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it had this very generic jazz production. The way the drums were recorded – it was just flat.

He was like, “I don’t like this; turn this off!” I was like, “OK, settle down. It’s not bad; you’re just responding to the presentation – the aural experience.” 

I think in the case of jazz, technology has evolved: there are certain ways people record now, and they get really good, clean records. But how do you explain the rawness of a Mingus recording? That’s also recorded beautifully. It’s not just the mic placement or anything. There’s something else happening that’s fearless. Ellington stuff – a lot of that as well.

In the music that I like, anyway, there’s a certain mystery. Music itself is more powerful than the technology documenting it. The music, as an aggregate, is so good and so strong and so powerful that no matter how you capture it, it’s going to be what it is.

LJN: How would you connect that to Dance of the Mystic Bliss?

MB: The mixes are done by Scott Harding, a.k.a. Scotty Hard, who just produced this new Sexmob record [2023’s The Hard Way] that’s completely his thing. It’s like they went into the studio and [trumpeter and bandleader Steven] Bernstein was like, “Just do whatever you want with this.”

They call it The Hard Way because it really is his interpretation. When he did my album, Champa, in ‘95, he had been working with Teo Macero. When Teo did my record, he asked for Scott, which is funny, because Scott and I were college buddies in Canada. He came to New York after me and became this hip-hop engineer, doing Wu-Tang Clan and Prince Paul’s stuff.

So, when I asked him to do my record, I was like, I hope he knows how to record jazz instruments, because we hadn’t really worked together since we were in Vancouver. And oh my god, he got great sounds, but when he started mixing it, he created this whole other aural experience. Sort of a three-dimensional concept.

LJN: From a mixing standpoint, this album sounds different from other stuff I hear.

MB: Scotty Hard has a sound, and that’s part of the sound of this, too. It’s produced by Scott in the sense that the mixes are the final say. I produced it in the sense that I arranged it and organised it and made all the musical decisions.

On the intro of this tune, “Sagra,” you hear a lot of reverb. But when we all play this last phrase together, he takes the violin and the sax and the guitar and creates one blend. And then you can hear that he’s tweaking it, so when it fades, that’s an engineering fade; it’s not natural, musicians all ending at slightly different times, where someone drops the pitch a bit.

Michael Blake and Chroma Nova performing at Nublu
Michael Blake and Chroma Nova performing at Nublu, 27 May. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

LJN: Tell me about the learning curve of the flute, as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. I love guys like Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as the other greats in the pantheon.

MB: I love those guys too. Yusef was the first player that made me think, Oh, I do like jazz flute! Because for a long time, I just kind of didn’t like it. I did like it in Latin music; I like it in Cuban music. I like the way it’s used in salsa and charanga and mambo and stuff. 

And then I heard this Pixinguinha music from Brazil; he’s like the Duke Ellington of choro. Amazing stuff. Benedito Lacerda ended up playing flute on those recordings; Pixinguinha played the tenor parts, the moving parts. Boy, do they sound tight. All that stuff is played up an octave; it’s insanely high.

I went to India with my wife, and I got some bansuri flutes; I was messing around with the bansuri. Then I decided, Well, I’ll get a European flute

So, I bought a student model flute for $400; that’s what I’m playing on the record. It’s like the cheapest flute you can buy. I took a lesson with a great flute player. She took my flute, said, “Let me try it,” and played this thing on it, and it was this huge sound – unbelievably resonant. I was like, Well, if she can get a sound like that, I can’t get a better flute until I at least sound a little bit on that level.

I still have that flute; I haven’t bought a new flute yet. I’m waiting for that moment. But it’s really hard. When you’re playing the saxophone and you pick up a flute, [pulls down bottom lip with both hands] when this is tired, you can will it to work. You can relax and adjust the mouthpiece, and when your face is tired, you can still play the saxophone. 

But with the flute, you can’t force it. It’s a very meditative instrument to learn; you have to deal with the breath on a deeper level than I’ve found with the saxophone. 

It’s not a head sound; with the saxophone, you’re controlling a lot of the tone from your skull and your larynx. The flute is also utilising your body, but it’s more about the support from your lower abdomen and the core. And then [touches lips] super relaxed.

The louder the band gets, the more relaxed you have to be. You can’t blow harder; if you blow harder, it just sounds terrible. The sound will completely fall apart. So, it’s a less-is-more experience to play it; you have to always remember that it’s delicate.

LJN: Tell me what we’re dealing with on Dance of the Mystic Bliss, as per the nexus of cultural streams.

MB: My music, I feel, is a very global music. I’m not just into jazz, as [far as] trying to define that as some pure form of music. 

When I got into jazz, I definitely knew about the blues and swinging and the traditions of the music. I’m really into older saxophone players, and I’m really into the tradition. I like all eras of the jazz lexicon. There’s not really anything where I would say “I hate this” or anything like that. I’m pretty open to all the music.

In terms of influences from Brazil and Africa, that’s certainly music I listen to and love. I haven’t studied it, really, or learned all the names of the different rhythms and things. That’s why you bring in other musicians; they’re the masters, and they know what to bring.

When we first did the project, we used a drummer. We used Jerry Granelli, and he was an old friend. He was a mentor; he was 80 when he passed away two years ago. But when we did the gig, we had strings, and they were acoustic; he couldn’t hear a lot of the instruments. And then I realised this was hard to do with drums in general. They’re overpowering everything.

So then I did it with the percussionist Rogerio Boccato, and he brought a little sit-down kit without cymbals. It completely changed the vibe. It was really brilliant, and there was a lot of air around the strings and the horn. I realised that was the sound I wanted.

And then, I realised that if we had two percussionists, that we would have more density and action and excitement. Plus, together, I had written most of the parts in Logic when I presented them the music, and they embellished on that. They brought the forró groove that we do on “Sagra.” 

It’s like Mauro-Rogerio music. They’re definitely taking Brazilian influences, but I think they knew what I was going for and they knew it was more about getting a vibe. 

And they went deep into their closets, getting different sounds and instruments I hadn’t heard before. Some of the instruments are not what you’re used to hearing – different groupings of percussion instruments.

Michael Blake playing soprano sax
Michael Blake and Rogerio Boccato performing at Nublu, 27 May. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

LJN: Please place Dance of the Mystic Bliss on the map of your creative evolution. What does it communicate as per where you’ve been and where you’re going?

MB: I definitely feel that Chroma Nova has a lot of imagination and is very melodic. There’s not necessarily a lot of multi-key music. It’s diatonic. I like working with pretty music; I like that aspect of memorable motifs and things that stick with you. But I also love to just improvise, and find that inside the spontaneous experience of improvising. 

I made a trio album with [drummer] Jeff Ballard and [bassist] Ben Allison called Right Before Your Very Ears in 2006 on Clean Feed Records. I really wanted to make a pure, improvised record, but we ended up playing tunes. It was a record with songs that had beginnings and endings and intros and things.

And that’s great. I have a trio with [bassist] Tony Scherr and [drummer] Allan Mednard, and we’ve been playing tunes as well. But ultimately, I like to do something that’s completely improvised – letting [manifest] whatever comes.

Ultimately, Chroma Nova is a project that I would be really, really excited to do another album’s worth of music with. But we got this far, we got it out, and I’m going to enjoy that. Two records in six months with a six-piece and a seven-piece – it’s a lot of new music for people.

I feel like I’ve delivered a diverse catalogue of new music with both those groups, Combombulate and Chroma Nova. I’m going to take a moment, wait for the battery to recharge and see what’s next.

LINK: Dance of the Mystic Bliss on Bandcamp

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